From a flat atmosphere to missed narrative moments, playing video games without sound often results in a noticeably less enjoyable experience. Cue Dan Rodrigues, a Toronto-based composer that has spent his career writing music to accompany ads, films, television shows, and video games. His most recent contribution to the world of gaming is the soundtrack to 13AM Games’ hectic, 9-player platformer Runbow.
Originally created during the 2014 Global Game Jam, the Toronto-developed title was released in 2015 and delivers a unique cooperative and competitive experience in which players must navigate short, fast-paced levels with disappearing (and reappearing) platforms. At E3 2016, 13AM Games announced that Runbow, which includes over 100 stages and guest-characters such as Juan (Guacamelee!), Rusty (SteamWorld Dig), and Shovel Knight (Shovel Knight), will receive Wii U and 3DS retail releases bundled with all of the DLC, exclusive 3DS themes, and a download code for the soundtrack.
Dork Shelf sat down to chat with Rodrigues to discuss how the partnership with the developer began, the upcoming re-release of Runbow, and whether or not music is underappreciated in video games.
Dork Shelf: How did you go from doing material for Runbow at a game jam to composing the entire soundtrack?
Dan Rodrigues: Game jams are pretty fast and furious, especially for a floater [Editors Note: A floater is an artist who contributes to multiple games at a single jam]. I remember I just wrote a quick track for them in like, half an hour.
After the game jam, we all went our separate ways. It was an exciting project, but at that point there wasn’t any interest from Nintendo or anything like that. I was checking up on some of the games I worked on at the game jam and realized, “Whoa, Runbow actually looks like it’s turning into something!” [13AM Games] weren’t necessarily at the stage where they were looking for music, but I got in touch with them, we ended up having a few meetings, and they were really interested in having me on board. Then, we got to work.
DS: With the recent E3 announcement that Runbow will be getting a retail release, it’s clear that the game was a success. Your soundtrack will be bundled with Wii U version, so that must be cool.
DR: That is pretty damn cool.
DS: What was the process for the soundtrack like? Were you given specific notes or did 13AM Games give you free range?
DR: They had a lot of creative input in the early stages. They had done a lot of research and picked musical styles that reflected the period of their chosen art style. As a matter of fact, Dave [Proctor, Managing Director] actually sketched out “Gotta Lock it Down.” He had a mini sketch of the themes that he wanted in that one, and all I had to do was modernize it and develop it. They had some pretty thorough briefs and references, but in the end, gave me a lot of freedom.
They came to me with what they referred to as “ultra-lounge,” and for me, it’s reminiscent of that Ren and Stimpy production music that you hear a lot. I started to bring in more of those modern elements, and said, “Why don’t we evolve it into more of a swing house situation?” We would have those retro styles, but if we hip it up a little bit, then we can start to find a way to glue all of these styles together and make it feel like one thing and provide some continuity.
DS: The songs definitely add to the experience, and I think we often forget how important music is to video games. Do you think it is an underappreciated aspect?
DR: Yes, I do. But there are some games with very little music, especially casual experiences, where I don’t miss it and I almost feel like if it was there, it would bother me [laughs].
In terms of its underappreciation, to me it’s a valuable part of the experience. Acting, lighting, gameplay, and mechanics can bring a tear to your eye, but it’s always music that kind of makes it fall together. It pushes it to that extra level. Music is pivotal in a lot of ways, but you can have experiences that are entirely void of music.
DS: What are some examples of video game scores that you think were done tastefully? Do you have any favourites?
DR: For me, the whole Uncharted series. It’s such a seamless experience, and it feels like you’re playing a movie because of the interactivity and implementation. And the music is good!
[I also like] games you can always go back to, like A Link to the Past. It takes a really, really masterful touch to be able to make a game that you’re going to drown 30 or 40 hours into, and a theme that you’re going to hear a ton, and not make it boring.
DS: When you compare the relationship between the gameplay of Runbow and your soundtrack, are you content with the final product?
DR: Yes, 100 per cent satisfied. The game is so fast-paced and relentless. Once you’ve got 9 players and all of the power-ups are going, it can get pretty crazy. If it didn’t match that intensity, it would be pretty easy for the music to detract attention from how energetic the game can be.
To be honest though, I feel that ultimately it’s the fans of Runbow that are the judge of that. The feedback I’ve gotten for the soundtrack has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been so happy to read all the tweets, YouTube comments, and reviews. That proves to me, more than anything, that the music supported the gameplay in a special way. I couldn’t be more grateful to fans of Runbow for expressing how much love they have for the soundtrack. It’s a great feeling.